HomeHmong AmericanOakland Councilwoman Sheng Thao overcame abuse to represent

Oakland Councilwoman Sheng Thao overcame abuse to represent

By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

For four years, Oakland City Councilwoman Sheng Thao lost all contact with her mom, dad, and nine siblings. They reached out, but her abusive boyfriend refused to allow her to contact them. She said she didn’t even tell them that she was pregnant.

“You know, it was my abuser who made me choose. He said it was either them or him. And it wasn’t really a choice,” Thao shared with AsAmNews during an interview over Zoom.

That began to change when the abuse not only put her in danger but also her son. Some readers may find her vivid story both horrifying and disturbing.

“I was six months pregnant with my son. And this is a little trigger warning. But you know, his father grabbed me by my hair, pulled me down from the bed, and started kicking me in my stomach while I was six months pregnant. And I was just protecting my baby, my unborn child. And I remember thinking, What the hell am I doing here?”

That’s when she said she took the bold move of leaving him. That decision meant that she would have her child alone. No one even came to see her in the hospital when she gave birth. Not only had she cut off all ties with her family, but she also cut off all contact with friends as well.

A total stranger drove her from the hospital. She and her son would live in a car for a brief time when a friend finally gave her a place to sleep on a futon.

Ten months after giving birth, she would enroll at Merritt College, a community college in Oakland where she would graduate as valedictorian before attending UC Berkeley to earn a degree in legal studies.

Sheng Thao, Oakland City photo

Today she is the first Hmong American woman elected to the city council not only in Oakland but in the entire state of California.

Elected in 2018, her first term ends in 2022. She has not yet declared for re-election or publicly declared her plans for the future. It’s a good bet, whatever she decides, that Thao will continue on the path of public service. She is a woman with options.

She counts as among the biggest influences on her life her internships with the Asian Pacific Islander Public Affairs Program and her fellowship with the Capitol Academy, a program of the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus Institute.

“Through that I got connected to local government,” Thao said. “I realized that that was actually the place in space where people were making the policies and the rules and ordinances that really impacted lives, and especially impacted those marginalized. I grew up really poor, and my parents didn’t have any services. And so that’s when I realized this is where I wanted to be,” Thao said.

She would go on to become a council aid to city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan before going on to become Kaplan’s chief of staff.

Annie Lam, executive director of the API Legislative Caucus Institute, describes Thao “as a courageous leader who will step up to do the right thing even though it may not be the most popular.”

The two met when Thao, then chief of staff, gave a youth group Lam founded a tour of the Oakland council chamber.

“There was a big wall of black and white photos of White men who served on the council. Her election to the Oakland city council was historic and means a lot to the Asian American community to have representation, said Lam.

Courtesy Annie Lam

Thao is one of many who have graduated from the Capitol Academy to be elected to public office.

“The API community was able to get over $150 million from the state budget to combat anti-Asian hate and to provide much-needed services to the community during this critical time,” said Lam. “It is also critical for young AAPIs to have role models in elected positions who not only look like them, but have lived experiences too. Role models help inspire the next generation of leaders.

Thao takes pride in being a role model for Hmong American girls.

“It’s such a blessing so that other young Hmong girls can actually see me as an example that your dreams, can come true. It’s been just a blessing to be that role model, especially for young,” she said.

Thao is excited to see the candidacy of Michelle Wu for mayor of Boston. If elected on November 2, Wu would become the only Asian American woman to be currently mayor of a large city.

“It would mean so much to me, it would be such a huge milestone,” Thao said about a possible Wu victory. “You asked me earlier, you know how I felt about being that role model for young Hmong girls. If she wins, she would be that role model for a lot of API women, you know, and so it would mean so much to me, if she won her race, I’m rooting for her.”

And Thao’s family is now rooting for her. They have reconnected and Thao says her mom and dad are extremely proud of her.

“I’m like their favorite daughter,” she jokingly said.

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